As potential trade wars loom, lawmakers step up to protect Maine lobster

Published on
June 4, 2018

Lobster has a way of bringing people together – particularly Mainers.  

The prized crustacean’s magnetism was on full display on Friday, 1 June, when the state of Maine’s four congressional representatives convened in Portland, Maine, U.S.A., with a group of U.S. federal trade officials to start a dialogue about the economic importance of the state’s USD 1.5 billion (EUR 1.2 billion) lobster industry. 

Concerns that Maine lobster could become a casualty in international trade wars spurred U.S. senators Susan Collins and Angus King and U.S. representatives Chellie Pingree and Bruce Poliquin to come together for the closed-door trade meetings, which were organized by the Maine Lobster Dealers Association (MLDA).  

“This is an incredibly unique opportunity for all of us to have the entire delegation from Maine here in Maine, all under one roof, working together for a really important, common goal,” said Annie Tselikis, who serves as the association director for MLDA, during a press conference at Portland’s DiMillo’s on the Water restaurant, before the delegation moved into their private session with the trade contingent.

“You almost never see all four of us together,” King said. “That’s an important statement in itself.” 

Maine’s main export

The lawmakers and industry representatives sat down with Deputy U.S. Trade Representative C.J. Mahoney and two other officials to have a “frank discussion” about the significance of lobster exports to Maine’s economy. Worth more than USD 336 million (EUR 287 million) in 2017, lobster continues to be the state’s highest-value export, a distinction that could be in jeopardy if trade negotiations limited access to key markets, according to the delegation.

Maine lobster businesses have been working diligently over the years to create a solid foothold in key export markets, ensuring that each product harvested in the state is bought and sold, Tselikis said. This practice has positively impacted all commercial fishing in Maine, she said, and has left lasting impressions on the state’s economy. 

“Trade and the export business for the lobster industry has really helped us to accommodate homes for all of these lobsters that we harvest here in Maine,” Tselikis said. “As many people know, there has been an exponential growth of this industry over the course of the last 10 to 15 years. Every single lobster that lobster fishermen land here in Maine gets bought and sold, and our lobster businesses have been the ones to go out and find market for these products to help support all of the commercial fishermen in Maine – up and down the coast, in rural communities and islands – to a huge impact to the state economy.” 

The current trade climate may very well leave Maine lobster exporters in dire straits, however, especially with tensions between the United States, Canada, China, and the European Union ramping up, the delegation said. 

According to the lawmakers, trade deals like the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, which took effect back in September 2017, are leaving Maine exporters at a steep disadvantage to Canada. A difference of between eight to 20 percent in tariffs on lobster could be generated by the agreement, which encompasses all 28 European Union member nations, Collins explained.

“Lobster is Maine’s top export, and federal trade policies, therefore, obviously have an enormous impact on the health and vitality of the industry,” Collins said. “The 28-nation European Union accounts for approximately 20 percent of Maine’s lobster trade, yet access to this vital market is threatened by a recent trade agreement that has been negotiated between our neighbors to the north, Canada, and the European Union.”

“This trade agreement puts Maine lobster at a huge competitive disadvantage, from 8 percent to 20 percent, depending on if we’re talking about fresh lobster or processed frozen lobster,” she added.

And the difficulties may not stop there. 

Retaliatory measures

Collins, King, Pingree, and Poliquin also expressed disquiet about what potential retaliatory trade measures could mean for U.S. lobster exporters moving forward. As U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration levies several rounds of tariffs against countries such as China, Canada, Mexico, and the European Union, those countries are firing back with additional tariffs of their own. 

The Maine delegation noted its worry regarding what could become of the state’s lobster industry were Trump’s administration to bring Chinese seafood within its tariff plans – China being the largest growth market for U.S. lobsters, importing more than USD 128 million (EUR 109 million) in live lobsters in 2017.

“As you consider how best to remedy China’s [intellectual property rights] practices, we write to express our opposition to tariffs on seafood imports from China, which we believe would lead to significant harm for American seafood exporters,” the delegation said in a letter sent to President Trump on 31 May.

“Targeting Chinese seafood exports to the United States is likely to convince China to protect its domestic seafood producers by retaliating with similar tariffs against U.S. seafood exports – including Maine lobster – to China,” the lawmakers wrote. “Our state is the nation’s largest producer of live and processed lobsters. Over the last decade, Maine lobster exports to China, alone, increased from [USD 719,000] in 2007 to [USD 128.6 million] in 2017. The Maine lobster supply chain alone contributes over [USD 1 billion] to the state’s economy every year, and additional value is derived from the average [USD 500 million] harvest of the product. Overseas markets are essential in continuing to bring these dollars home to hard-working lobster fishermen.”

The National Fisheries Institute’s Vice President of Communications Gavin Gibbons supported the letter’s views regarding the need for reciprocity in global trade. 

“The Maine congressional delegation’s letter is an important illustration of the global nature of seafood trade,” Gibbons said in a statement emailed to SeafoodSource. “It’s evidence that Mainers understand that trade is a two way street, U.S. imports from China can be as important as U.S. exports to China. Sounding the alarm here is not simply about lobsters, it’s about growth, revenue, and jobs in Maine.”

Surf and turf and trade

Maine lobsterman are already contending with an array of challenges, according to Pingree – the delegation is eager to work with federal administrations to keep from adding to that mounting list of obstacles. 

“Today, [the lobster industry] is plagued by all kinds of concerns, whether it’s ocean warming, worries about declining in the catch, ocean acidification – they’ve got a lot on their plate,” Pingree said. “The last thing that they want to have to worry about is declining price because of competition or issues around the price. Nothing matters more to a fisherman than making sure they can make ends meet, and this is particularly critical for that.”

Each of the lawmakers did not expect to walk away from the 1 June meeting with an ironclad trade agreement in place. King, however, was enthusiastic about the prospect of getting lobster included in ongoing U.S.-European Union talks about beef trade. He said he’d like to see lobster included in a “surf-and-turf” kind of deal or discussion.  

While trade was an important talking point for the delegation heading into its talks with federal trade officials on Friday, the legislators were also ready to stress the Maine lobster industry’s relevance to employment in their state.  

“We want to make sure we get the word out that we have to stand up for Maine workers,” Poliquin said.

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